Saturday, December 3, 2022
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A tribute to the Inventor of Sign Language-Charles Michel De L’épée,

By M Ahmad

The UN General Assembly has proclaimed 23 September as the International Day of Sign Languages in order to raise awareness of the importance of sign language in the full realization of the human rights of people who are deaf. It recognizes the importance of preserving sign languages as part of linguistic and cultural diversity. This day marks the birth of an advocacy organisation, which has as one of its main goals, the preservation of sign languages and deaf culture as pre-requisites to the realisation of the human rights of deaf people. Sign languages are fully fledged natural languages, structurally distinct from the spoken languagesAccording to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are more than 70 million deaf people worldwide and collectively, they use more than 300 different sign languages.

Communication is one of the most important skills we use in everyday life; from building relationships and asking questions to simply having fun, the ability to communicate effectively plays a key role in our lives. The act of communicating with our hands has always proceeded formal language. When we’re babies and children, we point and grab to communicate what we want. We’ll shake our heads and turn away to signal when we don’t want something. In other words, we all use a version of sign language to communicate before we know how to speak.

For millennia people with hearing impairments encountered marginalization because it was believed that language could only be learned by hearing the spoken word. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, asserted that “Men that are deaf are in all cases also dumb.” Under Roman law people who were born deaf were denied the right to sign a will as they were “presumed to understand nothing; because it is not possible that they have been able to learn to read or write.”

The first person credited with the creation of a formal sign language for the hearing impaired was Pedro Ponce de León, a 16th-century Spanish Benedictine monk. His idea to use sign language was not a completely new idea. Native Americans used hand gestures to communicate with other tribes and to facilitate trade with Europeans. Benedictine monks had used them to convey messages during their daily periods of silence

In the 1500s a Benedictine monk called Pedro Ponce de Leon used signs to help him educate deaf Spanish students. This paved the way and the first formal sign language was developed by Charles Michel de l’Eppe in the 1700’s. His method was based on “teaching deaf people through the eye what other people acquire through the ear”. So it was his vision that laid the foundation for the education of the deaf and dumb.

Charles Michel de l’Épée was a pioneer in the education of the deaf and dumb. He was a philanthropic educator of 18th century France who become known as the “Father of the Deaf”. At that time many countries believed that the deaf could not be educated. Teachers were unwilling to try to educate the deaf and those that did try were only available to the wealthy. Charles Michel de l’Épée changed the concept entirely. He developed an ingenious system for spelling out French words with a manual alphabet. Everything was based on simple signs, hand gestures and body language to express whole concepts.

l’Épée believed that deaf people were capable of language and concluded that they should be able to receive Education. Because of this, he dedicated himself to the education of the deaf and he founded a school in 1760.

The French priest, Charles Michel de l'Eppe founded the first public school for the deaf in Paris in 1755. Using the informal signs his students brought from their homes and a manual alphabet, he created the world's first formal sign language, Old French Sign Language.

The son of a wealthy architect who worked directly for King Louis XIV, Epee could have lived a life of leisure. Instead, he studied theology and law.

While living in Paris, he met twin girls who had been deaf since birth. Epee began teaching them a form of hand signals that substituted the sounds of the alphabet. His methods became so successful that Epee took on more and more students from all walks of life, not just from wealthy families.

He wrote in his 1784 book, La Veritable Maniere d’Instruire les Sourds et Muets, Confirmee Par une Longue Experience (The True Method of Educating the deaf, Confirmed by Much Experience):

Centuries after his death, he is still recognized as The Father of Sign Language and Deaf Education.

{The Writer is a Principal (I/C), Abhedananda Home- Higher Secondary Institution for Specially-abled Children, Solina, Rambagh, Srinagar, J&K email: [email protected]}

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